Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - Forthcoming presidential and gubernatorial elections in Nigeria could result in a further expansion of Islamic (shari'a) law across Africa's most populous country.
Comprising about half of the national population of 129 million, Nigeria's Muslims are regarded as a significant determinant of the country's next president and have the potential to influence the further adoption of shari'a.
Already, 12 of Nigeria's 36 states use the Islamic criminal and civil penal code, a situation that has given rise to numerous controversies, such as sentences of stoning to death for women accused of adultery.
The process to elect the country's next president, due to start on April 19, will involve six contenders.
The front-runners are the incumbent, President Olusegun Obasanjo - a Christian from the south - and Muha-mmadu Buhari, a Muslim northerner.
"In a situation where Muha-mmadu Buhari wins the presidential race, we are likely to see an increased application of shari'a law because he is a Muslim himself," said Josiah Warron, press attache at the Nigerian Embassy in Kenya.
Warron said Monday tight security will be critical to ensuring a free and fair election. Nigeria has seen recent inter-ethnic violence related to the sharing of oil revenues and political differences, apart from the Christian-Muslim violence of recent years.
In one sign of the tensions present, the Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Dr. Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, has taken issue with the federal government over the dates chosen for the elections, in the middle of the Easter season.
Okogie said he suspected the government was banking on many Christians not voting, so it could carry out "its hidden agenda" to rig the elections and "disenfranchise" Nigeria's Christians.
Christians comprise some 40 percent of the population, and the remaining 10 percent are animists.
The Catholic Church has asked the government to postpone Election Day by several days.
Political violence has increased of late, and it's reported that some states may declare states of emergency ahead of the polls.
A Nigerian Christian clergyman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he feared a civil war could result from Muslim politicians' attempts to apply shari'a law unilaterally.
Nigeria is deeply divided along religious and ethnic lines.
A report by the Center for Religious Freedom, a part of the Washington-based Freedom House, says at least 6,000 Christians, Muslims and animists have been killed in religious conflicts in last five years.
This was despite this being a period of civilian rule, which ushered in relative religious freedom.
The report said agitation for the imposition of shari'a law is accompanied by an increase in religious extremism, which if left unchecked, could push Nigeria into civil war.
It could also see the rapid growth of the type of Islamic extremism from which the al Qaeda terrorist network has drawn support, the center said.
Obasanjo's secular administration has condemned the application of shari'a in northern states, particularly in criminal cases where punishments meted out under the legal system have been termed "harsh and barbaric" and in violation of international human rights standards.
Muslims who convert to Christianity face the death penalty, while women accused of sexual crimes can also be sentenced to death.
In the shari'a states, even those who would rather be tried for an offense in a constitutionally-mandated court are instead dealt with under the Islamic legal system.
The Center for Religious Freedom said Christians can be subject to shari'a courts, but are barred from serving as judges, prosecutors or lawyers, and are therefore "second-class citizens."
The Nigerian churchman said the push for shari'a law in Nigeria has in part been helped by concerns of legal corruption.
"The Muslim population believes application of the religious law would deter crime and corruption."
On the other hand, he added, shari'a also discouraged social integration and gender equality.
Shari'a Law Issue A Factor In Nigeria Bloodshed, Churchman Says (Nov. 25, 2002)
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